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Career Coach

Bonus time: Why it’s still a man’s world

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Why do men still make more than women when bonus time rolls around?

(Thinkstock)

As many women know, bonus season is not created equal for all workers.

Madrid-based Marijo Bos learned this early in her career. While working as a headhunter, she heard co-workers talking, and realised that her male counterparts’ total cash compensation was higher than hers. She immediately asked her supervisors about the discrepancy. Bos, who today is president of the European Professional Women’s Network (EPWN), was lucky: After reviewing her file, her supervisors at that early job raised her salary and bonus.

There are better ways to go about getting equal pay for equal work, however. Rather than waiting until the last minute, lay the groundwork throughout the year. To maximise your earnings, ask if you are on track for the highest levels of compensation, make sure you know what kinds of accomplishments lead to bonuses and raises and make sure your successes are clear to your supervisor.

Think like a wolf

Above all, be confident. Munich-based Anne Frisch, a former chief financial officer for many international companies, suggested approaching any meeting about salary or bonus with a strong mental image that helps you remember that resources are limited and you need to fight for what you deserve. She has used imagery of a wolf fighting for food among its pack and a lioness defending her cubs. “This [visualisation] really gives me the drive to claim my fair share,” said Frisch, now a board member for EPWN.

Never assume that equal pay or even fair pay is the norm. Women earn less, though some research shows it is because they tend to take years out of their careers to raise a family, and because they are in jobs and career fields that pay less. In the US, women are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, according to the US Census Bureau. Worldwide, women’s earnings on average are 18% less than that of men’s, according to a 2012 International Trade Union Confederation report that looked at wages in 43 countries.

Bonuses exacerbate the disparity. Male managers in the UK earned average bonuses twice as large as those of their female counterparts over the last 12 months, and the men’s salaries were almost 25% higher, according to London-based Chartered Management Institute’s National Management Salary Survey, which looked at 43,000 UK workers. The survey also suggested women enter occupations where there is less of a culture of bonus payments.

Women shouldn’t wait for employers to make changes. Speaking up is the first step to laying the groundwork for fair compensation, according to Bos, who is also managing director of Bos Leadership, a personal development consultancy. “It's important that women in business touch on the rewards topic openly with their bosses or the human resources leaders mid-year so that expectations are transparent on both sides,” she said.

At a mid-year performance review or meeting with a supervisor, Bos suggested asking, “How do you see my performance to date, and what must I do to get to the maximum bonus payout?” You’ll then have half a year to work with whatever feedback you receive.

Don’t assume your manager already knows what you have accomplished, said Allison O'Kelly, founder and chief executive officer of Marietta, Georgia-based national recruiting firm Mom Corps. Managers with many direct reports and an entire year to track don’t always keep close tabs on everyone’s work.

O’Kelly advises women to talk regularly with managers about how to dovetail one positive result into another opportunity. “It’s a tactful way to call attention to a recent accomplishment," she said.

It’s better not to approach negotiations from a gender-centred position. You risk sounding defensive if you go into a compensation meeting with male vs. female in the forefront of your mind. “Begin with you … the excellent employee doing a fine job that is worthy of promotion or salary adjustment,” said Darnell Lattal, president and chief executive officer of Atlanta, Georgia-based, management-consultancy firm Aubrey Daniels International.

The more specific you are about your achievements, the better. “Women need to talk about the work they do in relation to the goals of the department, the division or the company,” said Lattal. “Document the efficiencies and effectiveness of your work and give examples of problems solved or issues identified that you have helped to find solutions to.”

You’ll be in the strongest position of all, of course, if you negotiate for higher compensation from the get-go. The best time to get what you want monetarily is when you negotiate your salary for a new position, said Frisch, who has worked in energy, aluminum, environmental services and packaging industries. “I have never been embarrassed at being perceived as a little bit expensive. On the contrary. It is like luxury goods marketing: It makes you even more desirable.”

The more specific you are about your achievements, the better.